Artist Interview: Gaming Artist Seung Kim

Welcome to the interview part of my blog.  This month’s interview is with Gaming Artist, Seung Beom Kim.  Seung currently works for Gearbox Software and has contributed to such projects as “Battleborn” and “Borderlands3”, “Pocohantas” for Genesis, and “Toy Story 3” and “Tron” for Nintendo DS.  Prior to his jump to the gaming industry, he was an assistant animator for Walt Disney Feature Animation.  His work can be seen in several animated films including “Lilo and Stitch”, “Mulan”, and “Tarzan”.  His many credits can be seen on his IMDb page: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm1635717/?ref_=fn_al_nm_2

I recently had the pleasure of asking him some of his thoughts about  what up-and-coming artists should be aware of if they were to pursue a career in the gaming industry.  His insights provide a glimpse into this amazing world. (Seung’s artwork fills this post. All images are copyright Gearbox Software.) 

A Conversation with Seung Beom Kim

You’ve worked in both the Film Industry and the Gaming Industry over the past 25 years.  How does the Gaming World process differ from the Movie making process?

Well there are a lot of similarities in coming up with story lines and ideas and the ability to suck a viewer in, but the major difference is that a film is an entertainment medium that is a passive experience for the viewer, and a video game is a proactive experience.  So, instead of just sitting through an 80 minute director’s vision of a story in a movie, doing nothing but watching, a video game requires participation.  In that sense, the viewer writes his or her own story.  And the story itself takes longer to unfold. 

Unlike a narrative story that is told linearly from point A to point B, Video Games are created as “open world’ concepts.  A good example of this is “Grand Theft Auto”.  Even though it is a game with a premise of crime, the world has a life on its own.  It allows participants to go beyond the story and play in the world and do crazy things, like jump sideways onto bridges, land on other cars, or race a train.  The game becomes a personal virtual environment to explore by yourself, or with friends.

A movie can only be watched by yourself or with people next to you, and then commented on,  but a video game can be experienced with others through interaction and participation.  It’s a more immersive entertaining experience.  In this sense the game has to be developed with more “fun” in mind.

 I remember being young and listening to someone telling me a story, and I’d interrupt them asking them “What about this? Could you go into that hole? Or whatever, and they’d say “Stop!, focus on the story”. Not that they were wrong to redirect a child’s focus, but the Gaming experience of “Exploratory Story” is so much more accessible to the curious listener. I see why people are drawn to this and the reason for its popularity.  It’s a whole different way of storytelling than what I was trained in.

It goes even farther than that.  You don’t have to play the game to be entertained, the people watching are active as well, as in a Twitch stream, where people are chatting and directing players.

There is an interesting dynamic between the streamer and developer and viewer all coming together to create an individual story.

Something I was involved in developing was a thing called Echocast.  Essentially it is a small window that pops up for the viewers showing them what weapons and abilities a player currently possesses, and when this player encounters a special treasure box, all the viewers have a chance to win something too. It is like a roulette chance for viewers with an extension to their Twitch account.  The viewer too becomes a sideline team player involved in figuring out a story.

I did all the pixel animations for this using the program Aseprite.

What is your current role in this process?

I am fortunate to have a unique position in this process. I was hired at Gearbox as a 2D Effects artist, because of my animation background, but I wear many hats.  I did these tests (below) on Flash animation. And my first job was to work with the amazing effects artist, Michel Gagné https://www.gagneint.com/Final%20site/Animation/irongiant/Iron_Giant_main.htm, on “Battleborn” where Michel and I created 32,000 frames of effects animation for that game, which is amazing.  It’s a 3D game with hand-drawn effects which creates a real unique style.    Now I do both 2D and 3D effects work. I also am a 3D modeller.  That’s part of the effects department.   

When you make your models, are you only using just one program? 

No, you need to be able to create some tricks.  When building a game, all of its components must contain the least amount of information as possible, otherwise it would slow the game down, no matter what technology is used, and to effectively do that you need a knowledge of many programs.  

So what are the programs you recommend that everyone should have a working knowledge of if they were to pursue this career?

That’s a great question.  These days you can’t really go anywhere if you only know how to just do one thing.  It’s not enough to be able to draw and paint great pictures, you must know the technology.  These are the programs I recommend.  Photoshop is a must, of course, Maya, definitely, 3D Studio Max, ZBrush, Blender, maybe, and SubstancePainter for applying texture mapping.  Also, in the Gaming industry, they want to see if you have experience with a gaming engine like Unity or Unreal.  If you are going into the gaming industry, a working knowledge of Unreal4 is a high priority, which they teach at the college level.

What makes Unreal4 so amazing? 

Oh, with Unreal4 you can create a game for PC, Playstation 5 or 4, IPhone or Android, which makes it a popular gaming engine.  It’s not just one thing, it has multiple disciplines. It has an effects engine built in, a level-map built in, you could build additional characters in it.  Like Maya that could do many things like render fur, hair, and all kinds of stuff, Unreal4 does a similar thing but in real time. So you don’t have to wait to see how things get rendered. Again, it’s a program one has to learn if they are serious about being a part of the gaming industry.  And the best part about it is, It’s FREE!  You can download it free from epicgames.com.

3D Car Model

With your knowledge of all those tools, could you describe one of your methods for creating a working prop to be used in a game? 

Let’s say in a game I have to build a polygon skull.  The polygons have to be really small, the smaller the better, but it still needs to look like a high quality polygon rendered object as would be created with a program like ZBrush.  I would start by modelling a very rudimentary sculpture in Maya, a boxy looking thing.  Then I would import that into ZBrush to create a highly detailed model. After that I use Zbrush to “Decimate” the High polygon model to a lowest polygon as possible model without losing its base form. Then I export both the High Poly model and the low poly model to Substance.  From there I would use SubstancePainter to reduce “Bake” high poly model information to a low poly model and start adding textures on them. This way we could have all the finite details into a cost effective fully textured low poly model to use it in the game. From there I put it onto Unreal, where I could further the style.  A cool style in the Borderlands games is that we added an ink line to the 3D characters to further a 2D effect.  This can be done through the Unreal engine. Here are the models using the process I explained

https://sketchfab.com/songmaster

Toby from Gearbox Battleborn

What are you using to create 2D animation into a 3D video game? 

I use Photoshop. (Everybody knows Photoshop)  and Adobe Animate, which is the old Flash.  But I don’t use Adobe Animate anymore(not for animation).  Nowadays I use ToonBoom Harmony which is the industry standard for traditional animation.  Then I can import each frame back into Photoshop to prepare my drawings for others to use.  I can’t just use one program.   I feel like my whole process of jumping programs is like being on a long train.  I start at one car then move to another until my piece is ready to pass off to someone else who works on their steps as if they’re part of a long train too.

Oh, another great program that I use is called Aseprite.  It’s not free, but it’s a great program to do animation on.  I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn animation or create games. https://www.aseprite.org/

Many of my students dream of becoming concept artists, animators, and directors, but they don’t fully understand how much study is required for those positions.  I try to encourage them to work hard not only at one thing, but to be a modern “Renaissance person” as far as the world of art goes.  What advice would you give?

That’s the point.  A concept artist has to be able to demonstrate every discipline of art, not just one thing.  I think of texture mappers, and model riggers too, as very hard jobs.  You actually have to study hard to get these positions.  Not just with the science of color and light and knowledge about anatomy and movement, but with technology and programming.  The more knowledge you gain, the better chance you would have at creating a game by yourself.  And some people do.  (A great example of this is the game “Risk of Rain 2”.  Two guys built this game themselves and were published by Gearbox, and is very successful)  

The more disciplines you know, the more valuable you become.  Again the engines I mentioned before, Unreal4 and Unity, which is used mostly for creating phone games, make learning the process much easier.  This is what the kids are learning in College and some High Schools.  The engines are making it more accessible for designers.  You must know how the engines work.

I would also encourage students to work on a group project rather than always working solo.  You learn more when you get to work with others, like in a studio. When your job is on the line, you learn how to do things quickly and efficiently.  But that comes after college prepares you.  In college, learn as much as you can.  If you just pigeon hole yourself into learning only one thing, and that’s the only thing you have, how are you going to get a position if other people on the internet can do more than you?

Where can students see what their competition is doing?  

Artstation!  Artstation.com is for artists to put work on.  If a company is hiring this is where they look.  As a student, you need to see what others are doing.  Artstation is a perfect place for this.

Does Gearbox hire from a specific college or location?

We hire from a number of schools including, Full Sail University which is a good school for gaming, FIEA in Central Florida, and SMU as well (https://www.smu.edu/guildhall).

I’ve noticed that you have been posting many gesture drawings on Facebook.  Is that something you still enjoy doing?

I like to start my day with a  fifteen minutes gesture drawing warm up.  It starts the day off right. I love it.  It’s something an artist needs to do to stay fresh and loose. Plus you learn something each time. You must always keep learning.  I am still learning every single day.

One last question.  How has the gaming industry changed during Covid? Is the studio ever going to come back?

Well, our studio no longer works in the same building.  Everyone works from home, and the studio hooked us up with the equipment we need at home.  Still, we have figured out how to bring everyone together through video meetings. We use a “team” and Miro Board.  This allows everyone to see and discuss story ideas and other information together.  So the collaboration of ideas has not died, it’s just different. It’s funny too, pets roll into the scene, and there’s a lot of comical stuff that goes on, but we get the work done. 

Here’s the thing, since this online process works, the studio is actually saving money. They don’t have to pay rent or electricity. People are spending less on gas. There are less car accidents.  It’s helping the planet.  There’s a lot of up sides to this.  And now a studio can hire anyone from around the world, they don’t have to live in the same city.  

Also, the gaming industry has boomed during quarantine. People are home playing games more than ever.   There are going to be more jobs for artists. Gearbox is hiring many people these days. Best Luck to Everyone.

Many thanks to Seung for taking the time to do this interview.  

You can check out more of his amazing work here https://www.artstation.com/artwork/VdVQOb and some 3D models here https://sketchfab.com/songmaster 

Send some good vibes his way!

Let me know what you thought of this interview with your comments and likes. Also, follow this blog and share with those you know.  Thank you.

Draw Masterfully,

Mr. Vinny

Art Book Review

Cover

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a book guy, with eclectic tastes.   I’m like an archaeological explorer in a library, and every Sunday I dive into the New York Times Book Section to see what interesting new releases might be coming. When I worked at the Walt Disney Studios, in Feature Animation, I was fortunate enough to be assigned to the film “Fantasia 2000”, in the late 90’s.  The building was directly across the street from the Disney Imagineers Library in Glendale, CA..  Twice a week I would be in there on my lunch breaks.  The space had four large areas of books, periodicals, and Disneyland and Disney World Theme Park original art archives.  My Disney ID allowed me access to boxes of original Marc Davis concept drawings for The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Carribean attractions, among countless others. I explored every box, some more than once, as anyone with access would.  It was amazing just to be able to hold these drawings in my hands and study them.  The book collection in this library was equally impressive.  This library contained Walt’s original reference library from the time the Disney Studio opened, with tons of out of print selections.  I was reading and checking out the same books as the artists of Snow White, Pinocchio, and Dumbo.  During this time, I was very interested in character design, animatronics, and puppet making, so that’s what most of my research entailed.

Walt Disney Imagineering Lot in Glendale, CA

Shockingly, after months of using the library on a regular basis, I was turned away by the librarians.  For some reason, they made a new policy that only Imagineers could use this library, I was in the Animation Department.  You would think the company would not be this divided, but it was.  It didn’t make sense to me, for this library originally belonged to the Animation Department and was donated to the Imagineering Department as a gift.  Well, the producers of Fantasia got involved.  We were a close knit group of artists working on the shorts for this film back then, and it was known that I have an enthusiasm for learning, and I was a good worker.  A few phone calls were made on my behalf, and I was allowed back in the Imagineering Library.   I was forever grateful, and continued to take advantage of my new library pass.  I think I got a few dirty looks from the librarians for making a stink, but I never let it bother me.

Since then, nothing’s changed.  I continue to teach myself through books. I’m actually a sucker for Mythology stories.  As for art books, I can’t have enough. My personal library particularly has a growing collection of “Art Of” concept books.  I learned from a digital animator, years ago, to always keep a good concept art book open next to my computer for inspiration while I’m working.  They ooze inspiration.  I’m often flipping through it while my computer program is “thinking”, and there are even a few coffee stains in a few, I’m ashamed to admit (by accident).  There seems to be a new concept book for every animated film made these days.  Some are good and some regurgitate a sameness to them, but overall they each have their own strong points.  Today I’m going to discuss one of the better ones, the 2014 concept art book: “The Art of The Boxtrolls” by Philip Brotherton. (I do not claim any copyrights of this book. All Images below are copyright 2014 Boxtrolls, LLC.)

Since this is my first review, it would be good to know what I look for.  I judge a concept art book on three criteria.  

First, I want to see drawings!  I need to see the evolution of characters, expressions, storyboards, props, and layouts.  The amazing drawing I love to witness most is the initial seed for a film.  The first concept that gets the project moving to me has to have the most energy.  Without that drawing, it would be hard to convince others to get behind the story.  It is refreshing to know that most of the animated movie making process is still drawn by hand.  Whether a movie is hand-drawn, computer generated 3D, or stop motion, it’s the performance by a character that ultimately matters to me, not necessarily the medium.  Getting to that point of a production is the story that this collection of drawings should tell.

Second, I want to see artwork from a multitude of different artists (not just a selected few).  Together they create the fun, loose ideas that made the film worth making.  It gives the book more of a studio feel that I am familiar with.  For me, this was one of the thrills of working in a major studio.  All the stuff you see in these books were on the walls of the studio, constantly changing and being added to. It was there to inspire all the artists working on the film.  Some of the directors I worked for even welcomed ideas from anyone who worked there (those are the movies people still talk about).  Sure the final character designs are wonderful to look at, but the journey an artist and studio takes to get there can reveal much of what was going through the minds of the artists at that time.

Third, I’m interested in color and style.  I love the moods of color within backgrounds, character design color choices, and how it is used throughout an entire story by means of a color script.  I like reading about the reason certain colors were chosen or rejected.  Add this to the stylistic “rules” of the design and you can witness how successful the artists were at solving design challenges and creating a believable world.

“The Art of The Boxtrolls” book meets all my criteria.  Being a stop-motion production, this book gains points with me for its puppet making construction photos.  Overall, it just hints at some puppet construction (but they are such wonderful hints for any puppeteer with “eyes to see”).  Generally, all “Art Of” books just hint at how a film is made (they can’t give away all of their secrets), but the greatest thing to take from them is knowing what the industry sees as a standard for professional artists seeking to work in this field.

 The extremely talented sculptor, Kent Melton’s artwork is in almost every concept art book I own, and here again his work is amazing.  He has an incredible talent for turning two dimensional artwork into 3D.  I’ve been admiring his work since my Disney days when I had his sculpted maquette of Bonzai the Hyena on my desk during the making of “The Lion King” (the good one) when I was a clean-up animator. 

When deciding on a style for any film, an art department has to make a choice on what to make the dominant feature.  They could choose LINE as in Disney’s “Aladdin” and “Mulan”, they could choose COLOR as was the case for Disney’s “Pocohontas”, or they could choose SHAPE as was the case in Disney’s “Lilo and Stitch”.  For “The Boxtrolls”, the LAIKA studio chose SHAPE.

The characters were conceived by their shapes before any details were being considered.  This book is dominated by how shape relationships add to the story.  The shape relations between troupes of protagonists, antagonists, and family are well defined.

This book has a tremendous amount of “Embellishment”, as well.  This is what I call all the details that make a world convincing. This particular film had to make everything in it by hand.  Every tiny detail helps make this world come to life, from the doorknobs and clockworks to the plates and silverware.  There are numerous pages of artwork showcasing the locations, vehicles and street signs.  Even alarm clocks are not forgotten.

The most complex sequence to animate for the filmmakers of this film proved to be the ballroom sequence.  There is a nice spread of a section of the storyboard for this sequence.  As for a color script, it is lacking in this presentation.  However, there are many pages with colored mood concepts for specific scenes.  I would say the majority of this book focuses on Character art.  There’s even a section with a group of characters, called the Cabbage Heads, that were cut from the film, as they didn’t advance the story.  This is the stuff I love.

The LAIKA studio has produced some nice films. “Coraline”, “Paranorman”, “The Boxtrolls”, and “Missing Link” are filled with beautiful stop motion animated performances.  The knowledge the LAIKA studio gained from their first two films, allowed their third film to shine.  Of all their movies, I find The Boxtrolls to be at the top, but this is not a movie review. The book itself shows a studio’s mastery in building a believable world with the highest standards of detail in every facet of production.  It inspires in the disciplines of Character Design, Set Design, Prop Design, Puppet Making, Industry Standards, and Style.  More than just “candy for the eyes”.

For these reasons, I recommend this book.  It is a source of inspirational artwork for anyone interested in the filmmaking process. Plus it’s the right size. Some concept art books decide on a new book format so they don’t fit with others on the same shelf.  This one fits in the Goldilocks Zone (It’s just right).  For those who are familiar, it uses the PIXAR studio books as its template.  As a companion to this book I recommend watching the one hour making of the film on youtube, which speaks more on the animation process.  With the knowledge contained in the book , plus the video, you will have yourself all the inside information you’ll need for a behind the scenes look at a fantastic world created by the LAIKA studio.

If you’re looking for how to animate, there are other sources for that type of instruction, including my online classes at kablooiestudios.com

It’s fair to say we are drawn to any “making of” art book by the feelings we have toward a particular movie.  If you can discipline yourself to a criteria and not just say to yourself that you liked a certain movie, you could build yourself a nice inspirational library with timeless selections and save some cash by avoiding spontaneous purchases.

If you liked this post, leave a comment and/or share it with a friend.  I plan to look at an inspirational artbook every four weeks. Next week will be a first look into THE NONSENSE FILES.

Draw Masterfully,

Mr. Vinny

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